What’s the problem?
The reality is that too many kids are heading for college and missing out on a much-more rewarding — and financially advantageous — alternative: skilled apprenticeships. Students who waste enormous sums on tuition, sitting in classrooms to learn nonproductive skills, could better use their time playing an active role in the fascinating, rapidly evolving, engaging, and personally rewarding world of manufacturing. After completing a four-year apprenticeship, a newly trained worker can immediately contribute to America’s future economic success.
Manufacturing workers of the future are not the line workers of the past. Today, they are part of a networked world collaborating with suppliers, engineers, and customers. The impacts of emerging technologies like nanotech, 3D printing, and big data are rapidly changing the norm, so manufacturers need highly skilled, educated, and adaptable workers willing to constantly retrain and upgrade their skills to keep pace with an ever-changing world.
Aren’t apprenticeships offered now?
We do have an infrastructure addressing this need at the state level. In Ohio, for example, there are 86 apprenticeship options from accordion maker to combination welder. In Northeast Ohio, the production of fabricated metal parts and machinery involves 86,000 of the region’s 264,000 manufacturing-sector employees. There are 45 sponsors for tool-and-die apprenticeships and 16 sponsors for machinist apprenticeships in Cleveland and Cuyahoga County alone.
But more is needed?
We can make further progress using the demonstrated success of the German model. Sixty percent of young people in Germany enter the “dual-education” system where they earn a company salary while the government pays for technical college. This drives the lowest youth unemployment rate among developed countries, a mere 7 to 8% — about half that of the U. S.
The 398,000 apprenticeships in the U. S. are dwarfed by the deadweight of 19.9 million college students, whose advanced degrees are devalued by the sheer number of graduates.
Germany, on the other hand, has 1.5 million apprentices and only about 2 million university students — a significantly more-effective use of their human resources. Their resultant output contributes to a trade surplus through exports of vehicles and vehicle parts, machinery, chemical products, computer and electrical products, and other highly engineered goods. One quarter of all German jobs are a direct result of exports, one consequence of the incredibly productive apprenticeship model.
How do manufacturers benefit?
Businesses can and must do more to support and encourage such a system. Investing in more apprenticeships can help companies at the technological forefront of manufacturing resolve their persistent complaints about skilled labor shortages. And the lack of qualified workers is only getting worse as a growing proportion of our manufacturing workforce approaches retirement. Replacing retiring workers represents both a challenge for the economy and an opportunity for the next generation.
Apprenticeship programs also contribute to needed change in society’s inadequate respect for the historical and future linchpin of the American economy, the skilled manufacturing technician.
But responsibility lies not only at the corporate level. If your child — girl or boy — is about to leave high school, consider the apprenticeship alternative. You may find that those spatial skills, seriously neglected in rote classroom exercises, are more suited to making things than taking notes.
Just as important, apprenticeships and the resulting degrees can serve as a way for the economically disadvantaged to get ahead and out-achieve university students handicapped by core curriculum courses that teach them little that is applicable to a modern economy. Some of the very best engineers in my career, involving everything from medical devices to missiles, airplanes, and trucks, are those who gained the deeply practical knowledge of an apprentice, and then layered on theory with a technical degree.
You and your company don’t have to contribute to “degree inflation,” where college graduates begin their independent lives with exorbitant debt and no career. Or worse, drop out and end up in mindless, low-skill “burger-flipping” jobs that make poor use of their talents, spatial skills, and potentially vast productive capacity. Encourage apprenticeships, the other four-year degree!